Lives of Documents CCA

Armin Linke's studio, 2023. Photo by Stefano Graziani

The CCA’s Lives of Documents is an introduction to an incredible list of artists

“For those figuring out what an artist does and how they do it, this exhibition is like gold dust.”

If you are young and unprepared and suddenly it dawns on you that you’re an artist, the next step is probably going to be rooting through previous lives. How, for example, did Sylvia Plath arrive at her poetry, and what made her think she could write it? And from where exactly does a painter like Rembrandt come from, gathering light in a portrait’s eyes? But since the precise chemistry can never be replicated, we are led eventually to details, to talismans like used paintbrushes and stationery bought. To the early drafts of a poem written on an envelope, and the particular time of day dedicated to work. In other words, what we come to obsess over is the process.

The CCA’s latest exhibition, The Lives of Documents – Photography as Project, is a show about that process. Curated by architects Bas Princen and Stefano Graziani, it takes as its premise “the production and thought processes behind photographic projects, exploring the distinct methodological approaches that transform photographic works into visual arguments.” Using materials from the CCA’s extensive archive, started by Phyllis Lambert in the 1970s, Princen and Graziani have reframed the private process — sketches, notes and unused photographs that constitute the unseen body of the iceberg — as inseparable from the contributing artists’ public work.

Lives of Documents CCA
Tokuko Ushioda in her studio in Tokyo, 2022. Photo by Bas Princen

Arranged across white display tables through multiple, white-lit galleries, these projects are presented in a chronology of sorts, allowing visitors to watch an instinct develop into an idea and finally into either a book or a series of photographs. Michael Schmidt’s project Lebensmittel, for example, his series of photographs from the farms and meat processing factories of Europe, is on display in both its rough and final stages: from a pre-publication book dummy with handwritten notes, to the enlarged prints of raw and industrial waste.

Altogether there are 31 artists included, among them Jeff Wall, Guido Guidi, Sol Lewitt, Lynne Cohen and Ari Marcopoulos. While some are only represented by a handful of images and publications, each is accompanied by a short dossier, which offers the curators’ own thoughts and a truncated career timeline and biography. There are in some cases video installations, short films in which Princen and Graziani visit the artist’s studio to discuss the origin of their respective projects. What is fascinating about these videos, and what lends the entire exhibition its obsessive and tender quality, is that the curators are completely captivated by the paraphernalia of artists, and the space in which they commit to their work. The images that you see upon entering the exhibit are stills from these studio visits, close-ups of books on their shelves, filing cabinets, Tokuko Ushioda’s refrigerator encrusted with receipts and magnets. 

Lives of Documents CCA exhibition
Artist books by Susanne Kriemann, 2023. Photo by Stefano Graziani

The exhibit and its layout are, at first, a little overwhelming, organized more like a series of studios, with one artist’s work often blending into their neighbour’s. This is part of the intent, however: to approach the projects as organic, and ongoing, rather than as sacred texts. In providing the dossiers and interviews beside the work, the show makes no assumptions about prior knowledge, and does not push us towards any necessary interpretation. Marcopoulous’s DIY booklets and zines, for example, are arranged as if on a large coffee table, some of which we are able to flick through. Further in, there are prints from Luigi Ghirri’s Atlante (1973), his play on symbols and the imagery of landscape, laid out beside Ghirri’s artist statement. Others are presented instead on the gallery walls, like the black-and-white prints from Marianne Wex’s Let’s Take Back Our Space, a tongue-in-cheek critique of the learned postures of men and women, and how they inform our idea of gender. The exhibit carries a tactile quality, most literally in the case of the reissued postcards from Armin Linke’s 4Flight, which are stacked loose, to be rummaged through, drawing us into direct contact with archival research. 

The Lives of Documents is a formative introduction to an incredible list of artists. While the starting point might be the artist’s studio, and an effort “to understand how the documentary incorporates the photographer’s subjective orientation to the world,” the photography itself — whether as a standalone shot, an ongoing series, or a hardback publication — remains undictated, stunning in its range and clarity. For those figuring out what an artist does and how they do it, this exhibition is like gold dust, one that will reward return visits. ■

For more on The Lives of Documents — Photography as Project, which runs through March 3, 2024 at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (1920 Baile), please visit the CCA website.

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